All hail the user innovators

Outside of research institutes, there's equally important innovation happening.

Outside of research institutes, there's equally important innovation happening.

John FairweatherPeople tend to believe innovation comes from research investment going into universities and Crown Research Institutes, with contributions also coming from private R&D. Inventions then flow from these investments and some are commercialised, thereby contributing to economic growth.

But that’s not the full story. It fails to consider an equally important source of innovation – from users. When a person or company reinvents, develops or improves a technology or a process, this is user innovation, far removed from universities or CRIs. And if better managed, it has great potential to contribute significantly to our economy.

Yet the Ministry of Science and Innovation gives no explicit recognition of user innovators and has no specific policies in place to help them.

Other countries do better. Australia provides government-supported websites that offer assistance to innovators. India has a National Innovation Foundation, which targets inventors and helps them through the process of innovation, while the Technology Museum in Stockholm, Sweden recently presented a special exhibition of user innovators.

These governments see that recognising and assisting user innovators can pay dividends.

User innovation is not on its own a saviour for the New Zealand economy. It alone cannot pull us up the rating scale, but it is a vital part of the process.

We need to provide a one-stop shop for user innovators – a place where they can get expert advice and support along all the steps in the innovation pathway. We need a dedicated website to help innovators communicate, and panels of established innovators guiding newcomers.

National competitions and a television programme featuring user innovators would promote user innovation and its importance to our economic growth. How about innovation brokers to provide assistance in accessing much needed capital? How about financial assistance for overtaxed family members?

Results from our research show network competence is paramount in achieving success – the spread of the invention. It’s the network that is critical both to inventors and to those seeking to promote user innovation.

It’s not that there are no such resources currently available – there are plenty, including a number of incubators. But user innovators are unlikely to link to these organisations. Many are unlikely to make contact with them because this requires already understanding that expert help is needed, and having sufficient confidence to make an approach. User innovators are fiercely independent, and are more likely to relate to other user innovators rather than experts.

When we asked everyday New Zealanders about their national identity – that is, how they see themselves – they did not include inventiveness. Far more important were sports, lifestyle and landscape. New Zealanders see innovation as a way to keep up while people in other countries, such as Sweden and Finland, see it as a way to be world leaders.

What if we could transfer some of our confidence at sport to confidence in innovation? There is no question that sport is important, especially internationally, but can we say the same for user innovation?

Another problem is that some of the existing assistance assumes or requires the recipient to be a company. Technology development grants require some years of company data in the application. User innovators may not have set up a company – they are often ‘proto companies’, companies in the making, or micro SMEs.

User innovation does occur in New Zealand but remains poorly recognised and supported. But it is a source of future export businesses – niche products with a good chance for market success. Arguably, expenditure on user innovators would be relatively modest but could potentially result in a good rate of return.

Doing this would enhance our innovation ecology and give us more sources of innovation.

Isn’t this what a Ministry of Science and Innovation should do?

John Fairweather is Professor of Rural Sociology at Lincoln University. This column expresses his own opinion and does not represent the view of Lincoln University.